Thursday, September 4, 2014

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Justin Kamimoto of Fresno’s M.E.A.L.



Fresno’s M.E.A.L. (Meals Engaging All Lives) is a grassroots organization started by a spark of humanity. They have been delivering home cooked meals to the homeless in Fresno since November of 2013. They have prepared and delivered meals including Chicken Wraps, Gluten-Free Pepperoni Pizza, Burritos, Spaghetti and Meatballs and Thanksgiving dinners. The project has grown from a one-time event to a now monthly endeavor. 


I reached out to Justin Kamimoto, who started the organization, to talk about its progress and the needs of the less fortunate in Fresno.


M.E.A.L.’s next event is Saturday, September 13th. You can volunteer by clicking HERE or by contacting them through the information at the end of this article. You can make a financial donation HERE
 

Links for Fresno’s M.E.A.L. can be found at the end of this article.




Chris Jarvis

What started this project for you? What motivated you to take this on and why do you feel so passionate about it?


Justin Kamimoto


The idea of Fresno’s M.E.A.L. was one that I’ve had since 2012. It wasn’t until I was at the checkout line at the grocery store that the woman behind me was making derogatory remarks about a man using food stamps to purchase basic food staples for his family. 

Talking with the man outside the store, he explained his family fell on hard times (both him and his wife lost their jobs) and were struggling - but were happy and thankful to still be together. After that moment, as I drove around Fresno and seeing homeless individuals, it sparked the idea back up and at that moment I knew I wanted to do something.


CJ

How did it get off the ground? How did you go about making this happen?


JM

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, I talked with my family in that I wanted to create Fresno’s M.E.A.L., but to do so, I would need to open up my families kitchen to cook, prepare and package these meals to distribute. After getting their support to help make this happen, I created a Facebook event to share with my close friends and family as a way to give back during the holidays. 

My professor Dr. Don Simmons received the event invite and allowed me to talk about this idea with my colleagues at Fresno State Humanics, which slowly led to me asking permission to do quick presentations in front of my classes for 10 minutes. Students were on board and were a huge part of the success the first Fresno’s M.E.A.L.





CJ

This has turned into an ongoing project, feeding people several times a year. When you started, did you think that would happen, or did you think it was just short term?


JM

To be truthfully honest, I thought this would be a one-time way to give back during the holidays. In fact, many people thought I was crazy for coming up with this concept of walking the streets in Downtown Fresno distributing meals. It wasn’t until the days leading up to the November 2013 M.E.A.L. that the monetary support allowed me to create the December 2013 M.E.A.L. event, and more and more people became interested in joining our efforts. We then started hosting Fresno’s M.E.A.L. every other month thereafter. 

In May 2014, Fresno’s M.E.A.L. launched into its next chapter. Michelle Rodriguez, a recent Fresno State graduate joined me as the Community Coordinator for our organization to assist in building the capacity of the efforts we put into Downtown Fresno. Together we created an organization plan, established meal menus and the basics of how we do it. In June 2014, we announced to the public that Fresno’s M.E.A.L. was taking a bold next step and we now host a M.E.A.L. Distribution every month.



CJ


How do you reach out to people to help you with this?


JM

The biggest way we outreach to the community is via social media. Through the use of Facebook, we’re able to help transcribe the stories of our volunteers as well as the individuals who receive a meal to the community at large. We also utilize Twitter to live tweet our meal preparing and distribution process giving step by step updates on how we’re making change. Today, we have a website (fresnosmeal.com) that allows the community to see an item of the month we currently are building a supply of, sign up to volunteer and track our progress. Our goal is to distribute 1,000 meals by November 2014 - one year from our original start day.





CJ


Do you see a difference in people who come in to help and then witness the needs of others in the community? Do you see people who may have come into this with a onetime goal of helping out who are then so affected that they then become activists?


JM

I do see a difference in the people who volunteer with Fresno’s M.E.A.L. People of all ages, from as young as 7 have been a part of the process. From Girl Scout Troops to Boy Scouts, to teachers and parents, to groups of families, Fresno’s M.E.A.L. has brought together people of all lives with a goal of distributing home cooked meals to homeless individuals. Many of our volunteers come back multiple times, and after each distribution they say the experience gets better and better.



Here are quotes from volunteers to show the effectiveness of our organization:



I had an AMAZING time!!!! It was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in a long time!! LOVED IT!! “ - Sherri Woods



The distribution part has got to be my favorite moment through the day. Because the people gave us their smiles as we gave up our time; therefore, I can guarantee that I'll be helping in the next event and so forth.” – Jasmine



It was an heartwarming experience. It made me feel good to be able to help and offer a homeless person a free meal. Made me appreciate what you have and to not take the roof that we have over our heads for granted.” - Teri Green  



Listening to our son go on and on about how important it is to treat people with kindness. He had such a great time and was telling everyone about Fresno’s M.E.A.L.” - Stephanie N.



One memory that has stuck with me is when I was working alongside someone I did not know. When I turned to speak to them, they were smiling. It was great to be alongside someone who was happy to be serving the community. Being a part of Fresno's M.E.A.L gives people the privilege to work in their community. I feel that there's nothing better than being involved in your community, working with your community toward a positive goal, for the community.” -

Michelle Rodriguez



CJ


What has been your biggest surprise during the process?



JM


Fresno’s M.E.A.L. is different than many organizations in that we do not set up a table and wait for people to come to us for a meal. After the meals are cooked, we put all packaged bagged meals into banker boxes and carry them through our two distribution sites (Court House Park and G Street under the Highway 41 underpass). It’s intimidating to a few people because we bring individuals to parts of town some have never seen before. But then something magical happens. When a volunteer gives their first meal directly to the hands of someone else, they start to smile. They then get eager to do the same act they just did.



Part of our organizations vision is to break the stigmas that are placed on homeless individuals. In the 7 months we’ve walked the streets of Downtown Fresno distributing meals, we’ve only received blessings, many thank yous, a few hugs, and lots of appreciation. Society is placing unfair stereotypes on homeless individuals that our volunteers are breaking because they see firsthand what homeless individuals are like. They’re as much of a person as you and I are.





CJ

What can you recall as the most poignant story you’ve come across as you’ve reached out to those that are less fortunate? What story made you pause and take account of how lucky many of us are?


JM

Throughout the entire Fresno’s M.E.A.L. experience, we ask our volunteers evaluation questions such as “what does this meal mean” or “what did you learn from the actions we put forth today.” The answers range, but there’s one common theme, it felt good to give someone who is hungry and doesn’t know when their next meal is, a home cooked meal.



Here are a few quotes from our volunteers:



I remember meeting a lady and gave her a meal. She denied it because she didn’t have any money. We told her that the meal was free, and her face lit up like she won the lottery. She was extremely appreciative. We didn’t just give a meal, we gave hope, happiness and joy. I’ll never forget that moment.” — Michael Quintero, Volunteer



My first meal that I gave to someone that I thought would need it was a woman pushing a cart. I asked if she would like to have a meal from Fresno's meal. She touched my hand, looked in my eyes and said thank you. I was filled with hope that I could make a difference.” - Jerry Green



"Thank you for a home cooked meal" from one of the homeless people was an experience I won’t forget. Observing one of the volunteers, who normally needs to be in a power chair, walking on his own because the experience of providing food to homeless individuals gave him the strength to do it. You could see how this experience affected not just the homeless individuals but the volunteers as well.” - Slade Childers



CJ


What are your feelings about government assistance as it pertains to feeding people? What are the obstacles disenfranchised people face in trying to feed themselves?


JM

While there is assistance for homeless individuals, I feel there is always more we can do. The way our organization is designed is to be as interactive as we can with the individuals we distribute meals to. Our volunteers hear directly (1) the power of a home cooked meal in feeding someone who is hungry and (2) the benefits of our care packages. Our care packages consist of a two soap bars to assist in hygiene, a nonperishable snack, a bread roll and a water bottle. All of those items can be accessed when the individual needs it.



The issue I’m finding with many government assistance programs is the institutionalized approach they take on within communities. Many of the individuals we distribute meals to remember Fresno’s M.E.A.L. by the quality of the meals we serve - that are not “institutionalized” as one homeless individual mentioned - but the fact we take time to bring meals directly to people. To be the most effective, we as a community need to work with others to see how we can be the most beneficial.

CJ

What would you suggest the everyday citizen of Fresno do in order to help those less fortunate? Give us some options that any person, on any given day, can do to provide for others?


JM

Giving a smile is a great place to start - to anyone, really. On warm Fresno days, fresh, clean drinking water is a vital resource homeless individuals are seeking. Providing a water bottle to someone you see on a street corner near you will make someone’s day, but something we overlook so easily. At McDonalds for lunch, get an extra happy meal or items off the dollar menu and bring it to someone who needs a meal.



I strongly suggest that our community comes to experience Fresno’s M.E.A.L. at least once to see how easy it is to give back to those who have hit a bumpy road in their lives journey.



CJ


You’re very young, and yet you’ve been a vocal activist in Fresno for a few years. Talk about why others should give back and how important that is.



JM

Since moving to Fresno in 2008, I’ve taken the opportunity to immerse myself in a variety of diverse organizations working with a wide variety of people. One thing working with the community has taught me is how privileged I am to have a roof over my head, food on the table and a family that surrounds and supports me as an individual. Many people don’t have one, or any, of the items I just listed. The one thing I want to do in life is show others that too. Giving back is such an easy thing to do. From the smallest gestures, everything you do for someone else makes a difference in the lives of others.



CJ


What’s closest to your heart? What motivates you to be an activist and why do you feel it’s important for others to donate their time and their energy?



JM

I’m very fortunate to have been able to have many opportunities at a young age to effect and create change in the area I live in. I have great family and friends who supports everything I do, a room over my head, food on the table and a strong spirit to preserver through hard times to help others. It’s my greatest joy to advocate for others who have hit a bumpy road in their lives journey.



Everybody can create change. In fact, many people don’t realize they advocate for something until someone says so. As humans, our goal should be to help others.



CJ


Do you have any organizations you’d like to highlight which can help people donate their energy, their time and their finances to?



JM


This isn’t an organization, but I’d like to give a spotlight to The Painted Table . The Painted Table has been a partner of Fresno’s M.E.A.L. since day 1. Their involvement with our organization started with supplying  100 individual desserts to go along with our meals. Today, The Painted Table is a financial donor to our cause, allows us to utilize their facilities (including kitchen and event space) free of charge, have their professional on hand to assist us in any way they can and donates products for each meal. This is the perfect example of how businesses and community benefit organizations can come together to help serve our community.



Fresno’s M.E.A.L. LINKS






Justin Kamimoto

Founder



Fresno's M.E.A.L. (Meals Engaging All Lives)

PO Box 25924, Fresno, CA 93729

Mobile: 408.857.3524



Follow our progress online: 

Web •  Facebook • Twitter 

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